After years as a chorister, then as a voice teacher, my skills recently came together when I became a children’s chorus director. As a newly trained Somatic Voicework™ The LoVetri Method teacher, I have been sharpening my ears with private students, but I never dreamed I’d be using these techniques in a choral rehearsal. My new understanding of registers and age-appropriate vocal work enables my direction in rehearsals to be clear, constructive and fun! Thanks to my SVW tools, I have found that directing a chorus rehearsal and teaching a private voice lesson have a lot in common: A teacher’s thorough understanding of vocal function can lead singers through constructive warm-ups and exercises which then lead to healthy, happy singing.
For this group of second and third graders, I start with warm-ups, and we work on finding, developing and strengthening the vocal registers. Starting with the head register, I have them start with light “loos” or “oohs” and then move into different vowels.
Next, I work on establishing a mix of chest and head in mid-range, using, for instance, a “nya – nya” sound on a 5-note scale. (This is what I call a “bratty kid” sound.) It is a nasal sound that helps strengthen vocal fold closure, which, in turns, makes it easier for “mix” to emerge over time.
Moving to the chest register, we will make Santa Claus “ho-ho” sounds on low scales. They also enjoy “Mama made me mash my M & M’s” on a 5-note scale. This particular exercise can be adjusted for speed and volume, not to mention different quality of sounds, both low and high. The children enjoy singing this exercise as different “characters.”
I have recently discovered a very fun warm-up that I call the “Wizard of Oz,” and I think it works well with SVW principles. Starting with a low, open quality (like the Santa “ho-ho’s”) say the Cowardly Lion’s line at a low pitch (below middle C, medium loud volume): “Put ’em up! Put ’em up!” Then, with chest voice (around middle C, still medium loud volume): “I am Oz, the great and terrible!” Then, at a slightly higher pitch, perhaps around G4, and slightly loud volume, The Wicked Witch’s nasal: “I’ll get you my pretty!!” Then in head voice, in a high pitch, not too loud, Dorothy’s line: “There’s no place like home!” Finally, repeat all from Dorothy back down to the lion. Character gestures to go with each line are essential, of course. It’s a spoken warm up, but it introduces and works the registers. Because the kids enjoy this one so much, I now invite one child each week to “lead” the exercise. We generally do this after the singing warm-up since they get so excited about it.
These simple and fun exercises function both as vocal warm-ups and ways to develop the children’s voices. Kids this age are beginning to experience the different parts of their voices and all of the colors and textures their voices can create. They learn to understand the concepts of head voice and chest voice, but it is a good idea to check in with them and ask, “were you singing in head voice or chest voice?”
Rehearsals with this group run an hour and 15 minutes, but due to the amount of music we have to work on, I don’t have trouble filling the time. I do have to be sensitive to when they get squirmy or tired. I can work with them intensely for about 25, maybe 30 minutes, but then they need a break. Movement and play for students, especially younger ones, are also part of SVW. It can be beneficial to allow a young singer to burn off excess energy if one is becoming antsy or excited. Even for an older student, a bit of movement can clear the brain and refresh.
When they return from running and playing around, they need to settle down, so at that time I find it useful to work on breathing, as this is a “grounding into the body” exercise. We may start with a “4-square breath,” which is:
Breathe in to the count of 4,
Breathe out count-of-4,
It only takes two or three of these breathing repetitions to produce significant relaxation and a new focus. Then we might do some soft sighs or “ooh-ing” like the winter wind. Not loud, of course. Then, back to music work.
During the actual singing portion of our rehearsal, I rely on my SVW knowledge to keep the children in good singing form. For starters, to teach them a piece of music, I usually sing it myself phrase by phrase and have them repeat. I make sure — in true SVW form — to sing the correct register and style I want to hear back from them. Then, when they sing, I listen. Do I hear anyone pushing when they sing? Am I hearing too much chest from one of the kids, while the others are in head? Is anyone straining on the very high notes? Are they singing together as a good choir, listening to one another and blending their voices together, breathing together, coming in and cutting off together? These kids sing primarily in head register when singing sacred music, so volume for its own sake is not a requisite, but as long as they are singing healthily and freely, they can be heard.
Most of the children love singing solos. A fun tip I have learned in rehearsal is to ask children randomly to sing a phrase as a solo. They are always very enthusiastic about doing so, and singing a phrase solo helps a child to learn it better. I also believe it builds confidence. (In addition, it allows me to sneakily listen to individual voices, to “check in” with a child. I do not use the opportunity, though, to comment on vocal technique; I only correct notes and rhythm.)
I find it very fun and rewarding to work with a group of young singers in a choir. I’m so pleased I can take a page out of my Somatic Voicework™ handbooks and apply it to a group of young children. The techniques work just like in a private lesson; the only difference is the group dynamic. I am proud to serve the greater purpose of giving young singers the invaluable foundation of worship through music.